Under the full moon one balmy Friday evening, I attempted to invoke the cacao spirit. Sitting in a circle, in a refurbished studio on the top floor of a shophouse unit near Boat Quay, I joined several other shawl-wearing participants for a “cacao ceremony” — a relatively new ritual popular amongst the New Age set, based on ancient Mayan tradition. The ceremony, which involves imbibing a blend of raw cacao and spice, was supposed to “open the heart” by calling upon the Mesoamerican patron deity of the cacao bean. In less esoteric terms, it claims to release negative emotions and invite positive energy into one’s life, through a cup of hot chocolate.
I was invited to the ceremony by a former university schoolmate, 27-year-old Ng Yin Ling. Despite being a fellow alum of the National University of Singapore’s University Scholars Programme as well as a Theatre Studies graduate like me, our paths rarely crossed as we matriculated a few years apart. Nevertheless, we connected on Facebook, which was how I became aware of Ng’s latest endeavour: Urban Spirit, an intimate spiritual centre, nestled out of sight in the heart of the CBD, that she founded in September 2016.
First-timers might feel a sense of trepidation upon arrival, as one has to get past a karaoke club of questionable repute on the ground floor, then walk up a steep flight of steps to the third floor, all the while ignoring the presence of the dubious-looking “spa” on the second.
At the top, however, is a cosy little space littered with crystals, paintings of shamanistic goddesses and geometric mandalas, drums and chakra sprays. A curtain separates the ceremonial area, a white-walled studio where workshops, belly dance classes and New Age rituals are held, and where I sat that evening among a scattering of expats and locals (some of whom were wearing an assortment of tie-dye harem pants, tribal-inspired robes and fringed scarves), huddled around a large serving bowl of steaming cocoa.
Ng Yin Ling
Typical ceremonial cacao blends include spices like cayenne and cinnamon, as well as homeopathic essences.
Leading the ceremony was 40-year-old Lila Spencer, a guest facilitator and remarkably youthful-looking Canadian woman described on Urban Spirit’s Facebook page as a “dance shaman, temple keeper, community builder and sound alchemist”, who was on a stopover in Singapore while returning from Bali. Assisted by Ng, Spencer ladles out the hot cacao mixture into small silver cups. One by one, we’d go up to Spencer on our knees, sing our names (and have our names sung back by the group) and receive a cup each. Then, we took turns introducing ourselves and setting our intentions (someone wanted to “let go of inhibitions and stop running away from (her) emotions”, another just wanted to “play”), and with each introduction, the group would toast to the person and take a sip.
The cacao mixture was bitter and astringent, like drinking intensely strong, unsweetened tea: It made my parched throat cry out for water.
I would later learn that not all cacao ceremonies are the same. Some involved meditation or sound therapy with Tibetan singing bowls. Others, like the ones held by Keith Wilson, the self-named “chocolate shaman”, an American spiritual practitioner based in Guatemala who produces supposed ceremonial-grade cacao (the very cacao I choked down that night) for sale to other practitioners, resemble group therapy sessions with participants often bursting into tears and sharing tales of past hurts with each other.
Instead, Spencer led us into a Kundalini dance session. Not related to the established yoga form, Kundalini dance is a New Age practice that combines visualisation, breathing patterns and freestyle movement. “The cacao spirit is a playful entity,” she claimed, letting out a high-pitched squeal, as though she were the deity. “You’ll feel your heart rate increase because of the theobromine in the cacao.”
For the next two hours, to the beat of vaguely ethnic music and Spencer’s instructions, we danced in the darkened studio. A couple of us were ecstatic, whirling dervishes, writhing and twirling up and down the floor, as if possessed by a manic energy. Most, like me, stuck to one spot, bobbing to the rhythm, shuffling sedately from side to side.
We ended the night with a short sound therapy session, led by Ng. Singing a glossolalic song in her hauntingly beautiful voice, accompanied by the high-pitched hum of a crystal singing bowl, Ng walked in slow circles around our prone bodies, while Spencer jangled wind chimes. Afterwards, we all hugged each other — all complete strangers before the ceremony began —and I left Urban Spirit, returning to the real world that is Friday night in the pub district: drunk executives, thumping club music and clouds of cigarette smoke.
Pham Quang Tung
Ng performs a Native American ritual using a sage smudge stick.
Her spiritual journey started with a painful relationship, Ng tells me several days after the cacao ceremony. We have met again at a snug vegan café mere steps from Urban Spirit. Ng, dressed in a flowing black maxi dress, her glossy hair down to her waist, is on a juice fast. “My lymphatic system is a little backed up,” she says by way of explanation.
Neither religious nor particularly interested in the metaphysical as a child and adolescent, it was only four years ago that Ng began exploring her spirituality. After a nasty breakup in 2013, and desperate to find a way out of her heartbreak, she had randomly picked up a book she had bought years ago in a second-hand bookstore on a whim. The book was “The Power of Now”, by famed self-help writer and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle (interestingly, also the book Paris Hilton brought with her during her prison stint).
Describing the book as “powerful and life-changing”, it marked the start of Ng’s journey. Voraciously seeking out and reading books on spirituality and positive thinking, her next step was embodying and living the practice. An avid dancer, she had fallen in love with belly dancing during her college years, but found that the courses offered in Singapore lacked the mind, body and spirit connection she aspired to achieve from the dance. So, she did what every other 21st century dweller did — she turned to the internet.
Googling “spiritual belly dance” led Ng to attend her first retreat in February 2014, which taught a mystical approach to the dance. Situated in Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand, “but on the other side of the bay from the crazy Full Moon parties”, getting to the retreat was such a challenge, requiring multiple ferry and bus transfers that she called it her “own little vision quest journey”. Finally, after being stranded at the party side of the island for a night and then enduring an intense overland ride on a four-wheel drive vehicle, she reached her destination.
“Suddenly, I was in this completely different world of chakras, theta healing, raw food, bliss balls, coconuts and reiki,” she recalls breathlessly. “It was so unfamiliar, yet so familiar at the same time.”
As she deepened her study and knowledge of the esoteric, it became clear to Ng that becoming a spiritual healer was her “calling”. She met her mentor, US-based New Age practitioner Amma Sophia Rose, quit her coveted job as a Dean’s Fellow at Yale-NUS College, and began training to become a facilitator, specialising in sound healing and divine-inspired singing.
Pham Quang Tung
The ritual is meant to cleanse negative auras.
Urban Spirit, she says, wasn’t part of her initial plan. The opportunity to set up the spiritual centre, which she calls a “one-stop space for embodied practices towards freedom, empowerment and joy”, fell into her lap. After a year and half of unemployment, facilitator training and assisting her mentor, Ng was still struggling as a personal healer.
“It was only when I was hosting my mentor here in Singapore as a personal favour, and helping her arrange and secure venues for her events, that I started receiving a huge uptick in calls,” she says. “We would hold the workshops out of someone’s house. One ceremony could be attended by up to forty people. There was such a demand, and for the first time I saw that there were people hungry for this knowledge and way of being.”
A fellow New Age practitioner and friend offered her the use of his spare office. The owner of a drone company, he had recently expanded to a larger office but was still on the lease for the previous one. He expressed his wish that it be turned into an “urban ashram”.
However, Ng resisted the idea of owning and running a centre. “I didn’t believe I could do it,” she says. “I was still a struggling personal healer and barely earned anything.” It wasn’t until after hosting her first event at the office, a wildly successful and well-attended “ecstatic dance” session, and receiving a vote of confidence from her mentor, that gave her the courage to take the plunge.
Today, Urban Spirit holds spiritual events every evening of the week, and all day on weekends. Mondays, Ng tells me, are for “sacred earth mystical belly dance classes”, a women-only session led by a Japanese-born belly dancer who goes by the moniker Nashwa, which means “elation” in Arabic. Inspired by ancient temple dance forms, Ng explains that the dance is a very gentle practice that aims to forge a connection to the divine and one’s femininity through mindful movement. Other events include breathwork sessions, drum circles, yin yoga and cacao ceremonies, helmed either by Ng herself, or guest facilitators from around the world, like Spencer.
“We want to make spirituality cool and accessible,” says Ng. Apart from maintaining a healthy social media presence and a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, Ng also emphasises that Urban Spirit operates on a different model from other spiritual centres.
“The older generations still have that ‘guru mentality’,” she ex- plains. “You follow a master, like a swami, and you listen to whatever he says. Even now, most spiritual centres are anchored on one master as the leader. It’s still that male-centric guru model.”
On the other hand, Ng says, Urban Spirit operates on the belief that you are your own master. “We only create the space to help you understand that,” she adds. “It’s spirituality for millennials. The magic is in you!”
Pham Quang Tung
After encountering Tibetan singing bowls eight years ago, Duclos now uses them as a healing tool.
Desiring to learn more about my personal magic, I contacted Desiree Duclos, another sound therapist as well as a hypnotherapist, on the recommendation of Ng. Duclos is the founder of Float Your Boat Therapy, a four-year-old home-based business offering therapeutic services for the psyche and Akashic readings, a theosophical practice often mistaken for fortune telling.
Duclos, a former entrepreneur and public relations manager in her early 30s, agreed to meet me one Saturday morning. Working out of her residence, a lovely light-filled walk-up nestled among the green foliage of Tanglin Hill, Duclos is petite and well-spoken. Raised Catholic, her interest in spirituality began after she retired her first business, InQbox, a cross-border franchise of box retail spaces.
“Through a series of coincidences, someone passed me Dr Brian Weiss’s book, ‘Many Lives, Many Masters’, which was about past lives,” she recalls. “I didn’t believe in reincarnation, but the book intrigued me so much that I found someone to do a past life regression session for me. And that one session, in no exaggerated terms, changed my life.”
Motivated by the experience, Duclos took up a diploma in regression therapy, a subset of hypnotherapy, studying on the side while she worked at a global network advertising agency. Corporate work, she says, suited her well, but her therapy work brought a sense of fulfilment that was unmatched. So, she quit her job and turned to spiritual healing full time.
Settling into a comfy armchair in the softly lit treatment room, Duclos begins with an Akashic reading, or as she calls it, a channelling session. The concept of the Akashic records was first introduced in the late 19th century, inspired by the teachings of the famed Western spiritualist and occultist Madame Blavatsky, who was also the founder of theosophy. The Akashic records, according to theosophists, is a metaphysical collection of universal consciousness and thought from every single living being, past, present and future — a spiritual cloud platform of sorts. A trained Akashic reader, explains Duclos, works like a conduit of energy that receives divine messages in the form of visions, sounds and feelings from these records, and translates them for the client.
Duclos sits across from me, closes her eyes and asks me to state my question. The previous evening, she had emailed me a list of suggested questions in order to prepare for the session, which ranged from the very broad (“What is my purpose in life?”) to the very specific (“Am I living in the right house?”). After a brief moment of silence upon receiving my question, Duclos opens her eyes and begins to talk almost continuously for forty minutes. She pauses occasionally, closing her eyes and furrowing her brows as if trying to focus on something in her mind.
Pham Quang Tung
A variety of wooden mallets can be used to create different vibrations and sounds.
Having known next to nothing about me, she exhibited the freakish ability to accurately describe my partner’s personality and physical appearance to me, as well as a few issues that had given me grief in the past. While the advice she gave me — or rather, the advice the universe was supposedly giving me and she was translating — could be argued to be generic (“Let go of your obsessive worries and let the universe take care of your problems!”), I did feel that it applied to me. A placebo, perhaps.
“I am not a fortune teller or a psychic,” Duclos repeats several times over the course of our conversation. “Doing an Akashic reading is not a psychic reading. I’m not reading your aura. I’m simply tuning into a different frequency, accessing universal knowledge, so that you can have a greater insight for your issues.”
Everyone has the ability to channel, she claims, and we are constantly receiving messages from the universe without being aware of it. “Some of the most brilliant minds and successful businessmen like Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have talked about ‘following your heart’ and making decisions based on intuition and instinct,” says Duclos. “They aren’t referring to your physical heart. It’s the deep inner wisdom that they mean. We all have the ability to tune into that higher guidance within ourselves.”
A self-taught Akashic reader, Duclos also offers courses to aspiring channellers. “I take away a lot of the mysticism and cult beliefs around it, and keep it simple and practical,” she says. Through guided meditations, she emphasises the importance of self-development and working through past issues in order to achieve mental clarity so one can channel the messages from the cosmos. She also adds that channelling work isn’t limited to doing verbal readings, but that “artists, musicians and writers can also channel divine energy into paintings, song and literature.”
The channelling was followed by half an hour of sound therapy to supposedly ease my “obsessive need for control” and my ten- sion headaches, using Duclos’ tool of choice: Tibetan singing bowls, which she had been trained to use therapeutically for the past two years. Lying down on a mattress, Duclos placed a large brass bowl filled with warm water on my stomach. She struck it a few times with a mallet, emitting a low ringing tone that created pleasant vibrations throughout my body (although, possibly due to the vibrations, my stomach would not stop growling embarrassingly the whole time).
Next, she struck a series of smaller bowls placed on either side of my head by my ears, and near the crown. The bowls, she explained, are antiques crafted over a hundred years ago by hand in Tibet, and are made with up to eleven different metals. When struck, they produce a rich, complex sound with multiple harmonic overtones, something that would not be possible with modern machine-made bowls. Striking two or more bowls creates different sound frequencies, that according to Duclos, con- fuses the brain and causes it to “shut down”, producing a state of deep relaxation.
I can’t say whether the therapy made me less of a control freak, or if it helped with my headaches, but I did fall asleep within a few minutes, lulled by the meditative tones of the bowls, and only woke up when Duclos rang a high-pitched bell to signal the end of the treatment.
Pham Quang Tung
'Artists, musicians, and writers can also channel divine energy into paintings, songs, and literature.'
Taking a more rational approach towards the immaterial is Helen Clare Rozario, a mindfulness coach and founder of Nirvana Mind, a secular meditation support group for new and established meditators. Its motto is, aptly, “As long as science can’t explain it, Nirvana Mind won’t do it.”
That is not to say that Rozario, who used to run her own events company, rejects spirituality. The 33-year-old had begun meditating at Buddhist centres in Singapore, but it was only in recent years, when spurred by a personal tragedy, that she decided to set up a non-religious space for others who wanted to practice meditation, but might not be comfortable with going to Buddhist centres, or did not have spiritual inclinations.
The key programme that Nirvana Mind offers is an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, or MBSR for short. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, the curriculum combines meditation, body awareness and yoga, and has been clinically proven to have beneficial effects on both healthy individuals as well as patients struggling with physical and mental health issues. Rooted in spiritual teaching, the programme itself is secular. Nirvana Mind also offers a four-week introductory course, as well as weekly kundalini yoga sessions and meditation pop-ups.
“Like yoga, meditation is something that one should be doing every day, but it can get lonely,” Rozario says. “So it’s nice to have the energy of a community, where you can hear about how everyone else is progressing on their mindful journeys. And through having a group dynamic, you’ll also get the structure and accountability to suit up and show up.”
I had met Rozario a year ago, at a dinner party at a mutual friend’s abode. Her earnest nature and focused gaze stood out to me; when she looks at you, she really looks. A few weeks after, I attended one of Nirvana Mind’s lunchtime meditation pop-ups, where I joined three others in the private room of an empty bar in Tiong Bahru for an hour-long guided meditation led by Rozario.
Introspective and serious, not a single trace of Rozario’s past can be perceived on her person today. Diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety since she was 13 years old and told that she would never be able to function without medication, her dependency on prescription drugs spiralled into a full-blown addiction, coupled with alcoholism, by the time she was 18. At 25, she suffered a major heatstroke while attempting a 10 km marathon, resulting in multiple organs reaching near failure. While in the intensive care unit, her heart stopped, and she was resuscitated through defibrillation.
Despite the second chance in life, her addiction and depression worsened. “I had everything going for me — a great boyfriend, who’s now my husband, I had a career, lived in a nice place — but I didn’t want to continue living,” Rozario explains. “I was very guilty for that second chance, because I couldn’t cope with life to begin with. I figured that I would be happiest if I died. I didn’t know how to stop with my vices and my husband had to come to terms that there was nothing he could do.”
Pham Quang Tung
Practicing mindfulness has helped Rozario overcome morning sickness, depression and addiction.
Three years later, at the worst of her addiction, her husband, along with her best friend, attempted an intervention. Her alcohol and drug abuse was taking a toll on her body, and according to Rozario, “the next step was cirrhosis of the liver”. Seeing the two people she loved most cry over her “sparked something”, which she identifies as her pride and ego breaking. She eventually embarked on a recovery programme, which introduced meditation to her. “I thought I’d give it a shot for a week, and if it didn’t work, I would kill myself. That week... became a month, then the month became two, then more.”
Rozario calls meditation a tool that saved her life. “It’s not the solution to my vices. Meditation isn’t a solution. It’s a tool,” she says. “I was so maladjusted to life, I needed something to fill that empty void within me. Meditation was what helped along with the process.”
After a year of sobriety, in 2014, Rozario received a terrible blow: her best friend, former Singaporean male model Shaun Joseph D’Cruz, passed away due to a freak train accident in Thailand. D’Cruz, she fondly recalls, was a philosophical person who’d found peace by moving to Chiangmai and living off the grid. Her meditation and mindful practice prevented her from slipping back to her vices, and instead she focused on helping D’Cruz’s grieving family.
“I learned from recovery that everything was not about me,” she explains. “I found that the moment when I’m truly living is when I’m of service to someone.”
With that epiphany, she enrolled into the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Centre for Mindfulness for professional training in MBSR and decided to start Nirvana Mind the following year in March. “I hope that by sharing my experience, and the tools that helped me, I could help others heal as well,” she says. Now in her fifth year as a meditator and second as a facilitator, Rozario credits her practice for alleviating the symptoms of her first trimester (she is currently pregnant), as well as allowing her to cease medication, although she advises that it’s not something others should do.
Helen Clare Rozario
Nirvana Mind hosts weekly meditation pop-ups at various locations, such as Lululemon's Duxton boutique.
Her choice to base Nirvana Mind in Singapore, in her own words, is for the people like her who did not have the luxury to run away — “the householders, who pay bills, taxes and mortgages” — so they will be able to cope with their stress, anxiety and depression in the chaos of city living. This view is echoed by Duclos, who states the belief that we are born among civilisation for a reason, which is “to experience and live, not hide away and escape”.
“A lot of people have the misconception that living a spiritual life means doing hippie things, like yoga, and living in a forest or mountain, and having psychic abilities,” says Duclos. “It’s really about working through yourself and finding a deeper meaning in life. Wellness today is not about someone telling you what’s good for you. I believe that we know best what’s good for ourselves and we should listen to that inner voice.”
Ng agrees. “Our practices just go back to your body and your inner wisdom, and what we do is simply shedding away the conditioning of this world,” she says, waving her hands in the air for emphasis. “We’re called healers, but what we really do is to create that base for your own self-healing.”
Urban Spirit Loft is located at 4 Lorong Telok level 3; Nirvana Mind is available here.
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